SGU Episode 453

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SGU Episode 453
March 15th 2014
Cosmos2014 620.jpg
SGU 452 SGU 454
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
JO: Jennifer Ouellette
Quote of the Week
Once a scientific truth emerges from consensus of experiments and observations, it is the way of the world. So say science… When different experiments give you the same result, it is no longer subject to your opinion. That's the good thing about (science). It is true whether or not you believe in it. That's why it works.
Neil deGrasse Tyson
Download Podcast
Show Notes


You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, your escape to reality.

This Day in Skepticism ()[edit]

Review ()[edit]

News Items ()[edit]

Flight 370 Mystery ()[edit]

Earth's Shields ()[edit]

Meat Study ()[edit]

Who's That Noisy ()[edit]

  • Answer to last week: Sheng

Interview with Jennifer Ouellette (49:07)[edit]

S: Joining us now is Jennifer Ouellette! Jennifer, welcome back to The Skeptic's Guide.

JO: Well, thanks for having me.

S: You were just pointing out before we started recording that this is our first Skype encounter, although we actually met you in person at a previous TAM.

JO: Yes, that was a lot of fun. Skype is also fun, but it's a little different experience, because now you're on little screens.

S: So, we have you on tonight to talk to you about your latest book. This is your fourth book, I believe. Me, Myself, and Why: Searching for the Science of Self. So, this is a book about yourself, but also just everyone trying to figure out what makes them unique or different, or are we unique? So, tell us about your journey in writing this book.

JO: You know, it's a bit of a departure for me, because I normally write about physics, and math, and things like that. But I got very interested in the idea of how we construct a self when I was doing my book on calculus, because I had this notion of myself as someone who was bad at math for decades, probably because I didn't particularly like it that much; and I sort of got – I became one of those people that hates the mere sight of an equation.

But when I went back and checked my high school records, I realized that I was actually very good at math. I got A's in it. So, where did this sense of my identity come from, that I was bad at math? And I'm also adopted; so the whole nature versus nurture thing is something that really has a very immediate relevance to me.

In fact, that was one of the first things I did for the book. I went for the very obvious things first. I got my genotype done; I got my brain scanned; I took some personality tests; and then from there, it became clear that those were only measuring small pieces, and what we think of a self is actually kind of much broader and a lot more malleable and flexible, and we mean many different things when we talk about the self.

So I ended up kind of really expanding the scope of the book even further, and kind of looking at social self, and personal identity, and the online self, the extension of self – which is what we're doing right now with little avatars; our photos represent us in the virtual space. And it just becomes this whole, very different sphere when you broaden your definition like that. But all of those things are part of the self.

S: It sounds like it must have been a lot of fun, doing all that.

JO: It was. I mean, you know, let's face it. We're all slightly narcissistic at heart. (Laughs).

S: Yeah

JO: We're born, and we see the world through this I, the I. And we don't know what a world would be like without that. I was originally gonna call the book itself, "All About Me," but it's not actually all about me. I really do keep the personal stuff to minimum. I want it to illuminate the actual science rather than actually being all about me per se.

E: And yet, this is your most personal book, or certainly your most personal set of writings to date.

JO: Yeah, I think so. It definitely is very, very, personal because you've gotta go places, right, that ... so I ended up talking certain formative experience, certain things like losing a very good friend to AIDS that was very ... really helped, really shaped me, the adult that I became.

Specifically, when it comes to thinking about the soul; that's something that, he died, and I went to retrieve his body at the hospital, and it was literally a sack of meat. And you, I think every person who has seen the dead body of a loved one has the same reaction. Where did they go? Where did this person that we know and love go? Because what's left is clearly not animate. I mean, they are definitely gone.

It's why I think we still hang on to this notion of a ghost in the machine, that old Decartes dualism. But modern neuroscience says that that's not the case; that it's not a case of the ghost in the machine; it's a consciousness, our soul, is sort of an emergent property instead.

So that was a really fun thing for me to explore, because it was something I had been thinking about a long time. I could definitely see why people thought there must be a soul, because it seems like something has departed when you see the body of a loved one.

S: Yeah, I mean, it's definitely an interesting experience that; I'm a physician, so I know when a patient dies, they instantly become a corpse, and they're treated completely differently. You know, a moment ago, this was a person, a patient, etcetera. And now you declare them dead. And now they're a hunk of meat. You know?

JO: Right. And it's weird. It's this weird transformation that happens. But it's a very real thing. So I kind of looked into this notion of emergence. And the self is very much a construct. I always sort of back away from calling it illusion. I know that's kind of a popular thing. But when you understand how emergence works, and this is where my physics comes in. (Laughs)

If you think of a chunk of gold, it's made up of billions of gold atoms. And it has properties that are very measurable, and very real, like temperature, like hardness, things like that. Those properties are emergent. They're not found in the atoms themselves. There is something that emerges when all the atoms come together and start interacting with each other to form the hunk of gold.

And that's what happens with neuron activity in the brain. You reach this threshold where you get enough connections, interconnections between all the brain's neurons and things; and they're all talking to each other; and it's all getting integrated across this vast network of networks; and at some point, you hit a critical threshold where an emergent thing comes out of it; and that is the conscious self.

J: You know, Jennifer, after you just described the brain that way, you made me think of something pretty cool. Like, what if there were a brain that was a hundred times the size of the human brain. Would there be some other type of consciousness, or some other type of level, you know what I mean? It could go to infinite depth. That's really cool.

JO: Yeah, I mean, obviously, we don't know because we haven't experienced a brain like that, but we have studied, or neuroscientists have studied lesser brains. And it was, I talked to Patricia Churchland, who was a neurophilosopher because I was kind of floundering on the consciousness chapter at first.

And she said, "You know, you're asking the wrong question. What you really want to ask is, 'How rich is your self-representation?'" And that's really what levels of consciousness are. The more complex your brain gets, the more multilayered your self-representation comes. So, I would say we can extrapolate that to a much bigger brain than ours, and there would just be many, many more layers of this self representation.

You know, we're capable of advanced cognition and thought. You know, we can debate these issues on Skype, and we can write poetry, and create art, and do all these things. I can only imagine what a higher intelligence with a much bigger brain would be able to do because they are, I mean, obviously, we can't put ourselves in that position, but it would be similar. It would be adding extra layers on top of what we already have.

S: Did you gain any insight in this process as to why you think we're so fascinated with ourselves? Or is it just part of the human condition?

JO: I think that's just part of the human condition; but also, I think it's part, we have this need for give and take. We build our sense of self. You know, we have an internal self, but we have to also orient ourselves in space because we have a body as well. So, we look to things in our environment; we look for mirrors of some sort so we can get a better, clear idea of who we are, and how we fit in space. We try and get feedback.

Whether it's feedback from friends, from a mirror, from physical reality, so that we know that, you know, hey, when I touch this table, I feel pain. But (laughs), so clearly theres a delineation here between me and this other thing, you know? That's where I end and something else begins is in that collision. So, I think it's just a natural feature of the human condition.

J: Jennifer, I have a profound question: If – and I'm dead serious about this – but, you know the idea that if you're put into a teleporter, and you're atomized, or you're turned into energy, and then you're reconstructed on the other end like Captain Kirk; is that other person you? Or were you killed on this end, and were you reconstituted on the other end. And you're the same person, a quote-unquote "person?"

JO: You have just brought up the naughtiest problem in philosophy. (Laughs)

J: I'm just curious about what you think. Because I have a very specific opinion on this.

JO: I actually think that it would be not the same you because it's a completely different set of atoms. And mind is matter! And so, if you're changing the matter, even if you're destroying all the atoms and rebuilding the information, yes the information is the same, but the atoms are different. So, it'll be a lot like you, but I don't see how it could be exactly like you. I mean, there is some aspect where it's not entirely the original you. That's kind of my take.

S: That's the correct answer, by the way.

JO: Oh, yay!


S: But we're gonna move on, because we're not gonna get sucked into this conversation again on this show.

J: So, Jennifer, the conclusion of your book, if you had to summarize the most important point that you discovered while writing this book, what would that be?

JO: You know, it's in the final chapter, I think, because we want to know about, I set out wanting to know how all these different elements come together to form this unique, cogitating individual whole, unlike anybody else. And I took a lot of tests; and there's all these different things. There's the genes; there's your synapses in the brain; there's the interactions that you have with the people and your environment; and all these things kind of come together and evolves over time as you accumulate life experience.

But ultimately, even though you can measure right down to your – hypothetically – the individual atoms in your body, and things like that, all of that information is useless without some sort of unifying interpretive layer. So I think I ended up talking about the autobiographical self, and how we build a narrative. That this is how we make sense out of who we are. In that sense, the self really is very much a construct, even more so in the brain and consciousness sense of the term.

But we actually construct a narrative and a story to make sense of all these things. And without that layer to interpret the results, it's meaningless. And I guess the best way I have to think about it, is if you look at a digital picture of a cute, little puppy, on one level, it's a gorgeous, little puppy, but if you broke it down, it's zeroes and ones. And those zeroes and ones are absolutely crucial, and they very much make up what that picture is. But it's meaningless without that interpretive layer so that we can actually see the image.

And so that's kind of how I think about the narrative self, or the autobiographical self. It's very, very, important to this process of really getting the unification to everything that goes into constructing a self.

J: So, has your outlook on yourself and the way you manage your life changed?

JO: Yeah, I had not realized to what extent the self is very much constructed, I think. I mean, one of the chapters is, I dropped acid for the first time in my life because a friend of mine; it's a funny story; he basically just said, "Look, if you're really interested in the self, and how we construct identity, you have to try acid."

And my initial reaction was, "Oh, you're just a hippie." (Laughs) He's from the Woodstock generation. "Of course you'd say that."

But he said, "No, no, no, no!" He says, "Because, if you really want to experience what it's like not to have that ego, that's what you need to do. But I have to warn you that when you come down, the self is gonna come roaring back, and believe me, you'd better like what you see."

So, of course, now I had to do it. And so my husband, Shawn and I actually performed an experiment – a very controlled experiment. We controlled the environment; we had someone on call in case there was a medical emergency, none of which we actually needed. And one of the things I learned was that I become that person at the party on acid. I'm the person going around touching everything, going, "Whoa! This is amazing!" And it's an oriental rug.

J: Oh my god! This is awesome! So, were you scared going into it? Were you nervous about trying something so profound?

JO: You know, so many people have dropped acid so many times over the years, I was not scared. I figured, "You know, we're controlling the environment." I'd interviewed a lot of neuroscientists and people who worked in this area beforehand, and gotten a lot of good advice. A lot of it depends on how you set the stage. I think I would not have wanted to take it at a loud party. I think that would have been very upsetting.

But because it was in this nice, calm beach house, nature environment, and it was just the two of us, and there's a safeness there. It was a very good way. When they did these experiments with LSD, they used them in psychotherapy in the 1950's. Cary Grant, for instance, dropped acid as part of his psychotherapy. They would always isolate them and cover their eyes with blindfolds, and pipe in classical music to control the experience to a certain extent.

So it's really specific to the individual, and I guess I'm just kind of a happy person in general. So, I had a really good experience.

But you really do. It's not so much that the ego goes away. I think that it's more, it messes with your sense of self and other, that those boundaries ... I couldn't take notes, because my hand kept melting into the paper. And I loved the granite countertop in the kitchen because I'd put my hand on it, and the pattern would swirl up my skin. And I would be getting this tattoo, you know? And boulders will pulse as if they're breathing. And I spent a lot of time, Shawn has the most boring video footage of me staring at a plank in the deck chair because the wood just kind of opened up, then I could see the molecules.

It's a really good experience in that respect because it does make you realize that yes, there's an I there, and that I is that conscious self. But the rest of your brain constructs your physical self, your sense of self in space and time, all of that is very much a construct. So, I've never really kind of looked at reality the same way since.

S: Yeah, even the most basic things that we take for granted, like you are separate from the universe, is actually a construct of your brain. There's a circuit in your brain that makes you feel that way. And if you disrupt that, then you meld with the universe. You know, your construction of yourself and reality is malleable infinitely if you can disrupt the right circuit of the brain.

JO: Right, and that was really illuminating for me, because you really do feel disembodied like you're floating; which I thought was great. But I can imagine that some people would find that extremely upsetting.

S: Well, Jennifer, it was certainly fascinating and enjoyable to have you back on the show.

JO: Oh, it was my pleasure! Always a pleasure to chat with you guys.

S: Are we gonna say you at any of the future conferences?

JO: I hope so. I haven't decided which or where I'm going this summer, but generally I go to one or two a year. So, at some point you'll see me.

S: Alright, thanks again. Take care.

Science or Fiction ()[edit]

Item #1: A new study finds that 25% of clinical trials are discontinued prior to their completion. Item #2: Researchers find that subjects fail to identify fake photo IDs (where the picture does not match the person) 45% of the time. Item #3: Researchers studying concession stand sales at sporting events find that the inclusion of healthy options, such as fruit and cheese, caused sales to drop by 30%.

Skeptical Quote of the Week ()[edit]

'Once a scientific truth emerges from consensus of experiments and observations, it is the way of the world. So say science… When different experiments give you the same result, it is no longer subject to your opinion. That's the good thing about (science). It is true whether or not you believe in it. That's why it works.'- Neil deGrasse Tyson

S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by SGU Productions, dedicated to promoting science and critical thinking. For more information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at, where you will find the show notes as well as links to our blogs, videos, online forum, and other content. You can send us feedback or questions to Also, please consider supporting the SGU by visiting the store page on our website, where you will find merchandise, premium content, and subscription information. Our listeners are what make SGU possible.


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